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Does too much screen time rot your brain? Has the internet shrunk our attention span? Are our smartphones making us socially inept?

These are just a few of the questions that I attempted to answer in a recent Fresh Thinking session here at Table19. As a planner (and part time Psychology student) I was keen to tackle this topic in the best way I know how: through research.

No, our attention spans aren’t shrinking because of technology

You’ve probably heard this one before: Research has shown that our attention spans are getting shorter, to the degree that a goldfish could focus on a task for longer than us.

Despite widespread media coverage on this ‘research’, a BBC More or Less investigation has found that the source of this ‘finding’ is unknown.

Even the concept of an ‘attention span’ is not really useful in itself, because we attend differently to different things. It’s easy to focus on a 90 minute episode of Game of Thrones… but probably not so much on an Excel spreadsheet.

Evidence for the negative impact of tech on your brain is limited, too. Our brains are made up of billions of neurons, which are structured in patterns that vary due to our own individual learning and life experiences.

Using technology will have an impact on how those patterns develop, due to the fact it’s now embedded in our daily lives – but there’s no evidence to say that it’s a negative impact. The brains of London cab drivers look different to the average person’s, because of what they learn in The Knowledge and their experiences navigating London – we find that interesting, but not something to panic about, right?

But we do think differently when a screen is involved

Whilst there’s little evidence that tech is fundamentally damaging to our brains, there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that it influences how we think in the moment.

If you’re bombarded by emails and texts, your IQ score might drop by 10 points. If you read something on a screen, you’re more likely to miss details or forget them than if you read it on paper.

And heavy smartphone users are more likely to experience ‘cognitive errors’, such as forgetfulness and bumping into things (as anyone who’s walked into a lamp-post while checking Twitter will know.. not that that’s ever happened to me. Ahem).


Our decision making changes too

Researchers have found when choosing a takeaway, we’ll pick more calorific food – and more of it in total – when we use a screen to place our order. This has been linked to the ‘online disinhibition effect’, which makes us behave differently due to the fact we can’t see a real-life person judging us.

Experiments have also shown that when asked to pick items such as chocolate bars from a grid on-screen, the most important factor is where it’s positioned – not how much you like the item. Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioural economist and author of The Smarter Screen, notes that in these cases, your eyes lead your mind.

This is something that the big tech companies know all too well – Facebook reportedly runs 1000 A/B tests per day to see how it can best capture and maintain our attention. Our digital footprints provide invaluable data on what we actually do – as opposed to classic market research methods which can only look at what we say.

What does this mean for us?

The evidence points to the fact that in a digital world, the way we think is influenced by technology – but not fundamentally changed. The same rules apply: we need to create comms that speak to the people we’re talking to. But we now have better, more powerful tools to help understand them – and more responsibility to use them with care.


-Kate Brennan, Senior Planner